As a school administrator and mom, Jody Hiltenbrand gets the struggle parents face around kids and cellphones. How young is too young, and what does the adult do to set boundaries?
From her perspective, the topic is worthy of community dialogue, one she suggested to Coeur d’Alene School District’s Stand Up Speak Up group. In December, the group sent a letter that included resources for parents. Newspaper opinion pieces followed.
On March 9, the district also invited families to watch “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” a 2016 documentary by Delaney Ruston, physician and Seattle filmmaker. It covers her family’s journey toward cellphone boundaries but also the digital age’s impact on the mental well-being of youth.
“I was surprised at the amount of time, sometimes, I’ve spent on issues related to cellphones,” said Hiltenbrand, assistant principal at Canfield Middle School.
“It’s not something necessarily that happens at school. A student might post something cruel on social media, then something comes up at school related to that post, or it can also be an inappropriate picture. It comes my way when a parent or student reports it, or there’s an argument in the hall.”
School administrators work with a campus police officer and other agencies if serious threats rise.
“Last year, some girls were talking to who they thought was a young, nice-looking gentleman, and he turned out to be a sex offender in Canada,” Hiltenbrand said.
For Coeur d’Alene resident Bill Deruyter, his sixth-grade daughter and eighth-grade son both know their parents’ rules regarding cellphones. The kids had to wait until middle school, they don’t have Facebook accounts, and Deruyter uses Verizon’s parental control service to limit time and data.
“From 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., it can’t be used except to call mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, and 911,” Deruyter said. “They can’t use it to call friends during school hours. As far as data-streaming, I limit their data at night. It’s off at 9 o’clock and if they text after that, I get a notification.”
He and his wife also do random spot checks on their kids’ phones. “We pay for the phone; we can take it away.”
“They do have Instagram, but it’s private,” Deruyter added. “If they want to add a friend, then we sit down with them. I think the hardest thing this day and age is parents have to remember to be interactive, and now they have to be interactive regarding technology … they have to research it.”
“Screenagers” explores how young people don’t always grasp long-term consequences of addictive or inappropriate actions. Other pitfalls might include texts encouraging violence, self-harm or drug use. Some students don’t get a good night’s sleep because of texting and social media time.
Before the show at Hayden Discount Cinema, district officials offered prevention handouts on such topics as cyberbullying, inappropriate photos and excessive screen time. They also had example cellphone contracts between parents and kids.
Most schools require students to put away cellphones during classes, unless a teacher allows their use. While cellphones have many benefits, school administrators want to help families be proactive, Hiltenbrand said. Parents didn’t grow up with smartphones and social media, she added.
“We have kids in fourth and fifth grades who have smartphones too,” she said. “ It’s essentially a minicomputer. We’re not armed as parents with how to help kids use these well.”
Parents Matt and Rosie Gibb, who attended the show, said they hope to continue with use of a basic flip phone for an 11-year-old daughter until high school. They also have a 7-year-old.
“We’re trying to avoid a smartphone as long as possible,” said Matt Gibb. “Social media will just chew kids up.”
“They did make a good point in the show about parents leading by example,” he said. “Adults need to be consistent too about their amount of screen time.”
Spokane Public Schools offers digital-age guidance to parents on the district’s website. Mark Lund, Glover Middle School assistant principal, said he’s talked to students in classes about their responsibilities with social media.
Students might report a cruel message or inappropriate photo, he said, but they can take action too.
“We wanted to challenge kids; you have some responsibility in what shows up on your Facebook page or on your Instagram, because you’re making a choice to follow somebody else,” Lund said.
“We’re going to challenge you and say, ‘If you have someone who continues to post negative comments, if you don’t take some action, you end up being somebody they spread the message through. Our students have responded well to that.”
He said most middle school students today have a flip phone or smartphone, and parents say they want them to feel safe if they need a ride or because of weather. “You can obviously do that with a flip phone, so I’ve had conversations with parents about that.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers opinions on the topic and information at www.healthychildren.org, said Dr. Randi Edwards, a Spokane pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center.
“The other half of the cellphone dialogue has to do with media exposure and at what age should we allow kids to have exposure,” she said.
Infants up to 18 months shouldn’t be exposed to any screen time, she said. “The noises and visuals on electronics can be distracting and sometimes distressing to infants. The brain development in that age group really happens during face-to-face interactions in person.”
Children 2 to 5 need lots of unstructured, unplugged play time. Pediatricians are aware kids ages 6 and over start to use electronics more for school and homework, but experts advocate for balance.
“We encourage parents to model good media use,” Edwards said. “We also recommend parents talk to kids about risks. By sixth grade, most kids seem to have phones today.”
Parents should talk to children about inappropriate content, cyberbullying, online predators and about leaving a longtime digital footprint if something negative is posted on social media, she said.
“Parents need to designate media-free time, and we also suggest media-free zones,” Edwards added. “We wouldn’t suggest phones or a computer in the bedroom anytime.”
Ruston also suggests “Tuesday Tech Talks” between parents and youth to regularly discuss digital-age topics among families members.
Rick Jones, Coeur d’Alene High School counselor, wrote a newspaper opinion soon after the district’s December letter. He urges regular conversations in households too.
“My experience working with high school students has opened my eyes to a world that most adults would be stunned, or at a minimum concerned, to know exists,” he wrote. One surprise would be in how late kids are staying up, but that’s just the start, Jones said.
“I have had multiple students tell me that they, or someone close to them, have sent and received nude photos of themselves, their friends or others.”
In a phone interview, Jones said students often don’t think about long-term consequences of sending a revealing picture to someone they think can be trusted.
“Presumably, it’s the boyfriend or girlfriend, but again, once it’s out there it’s out there,” he said.
“I’ve heard a lot of parents say they can’t check on what their kids have on cellphones, that would be invading their privacy. My take as a parent and counselor is, it’s your responsibility to make sure they’re safe, and if that means invading their privacy, then so be it.”
The “Screenagers” film covers concerns about young people racing to post selfies and update social media. Experts in the film also discuss some risks of constant digital exposure when young brains are still developing. Those are concerns Hiltenbrand and Lund share.
“If a student sends a photo of herself in a bra, will an employer searching her name in six or seven years find that? I hope not,” said Hiltenbrand. “I think that’s hard for a middle-schooler to understand, that what you do now on a phone can affect you in 10 years.”
Lund said that for some students updating posts, “It almost feels like a competition. They want to be able to share their life story with all these people, and I think unfortunately, that’s how some establish self-worth, checking to see, do people like it?”
But he adds, that behavior might not be all that much different among adults.